“How we treat strangers says a lot about our values.”
Two strangers touching one another, posing for a photo. So simple is the idea of “Touching Strangers”, a project of the American photographer Richard Renaldi. But the eye of the beholder immediately sees more: how do we overcome boundaries, what means intimacy? How has being together changed in a society which is so highly charged – and not just since Donald Trump – as that of the United States?
Mr Renaldi, in your long-term project “Touching Strangers”, you show people who are completely unknown to each other in close, almost intimate proximity. This must have felt awkward for many of them. Why did they still take part?
I was very direct: I simply asked them, told them I was interested in the relationships between strangers, and that they would have to touch each other in the portraits. Surprisingly, many said right away, “Okay, let’s do it”. I showed others pictures on my smartphone to let them know what I meant. Of course, I also explained a lot. In this way, trust was slowly formed.
What do you want to show in “Touching Strangers”?
The idea developed when, after the 9/11disaster, I photographed people waiting at Greyhound intercity bus stations in the United States. Back then many people didn’t like the idea of getting onto a plane and instead took the bus. I was interested in the dynamics of such groups, the intimacy, how strangers in public but cramped space interact with each other. I like the complexity and at the same time the great simplicity of the project: how we treat strangers says a lot about our values. A large part of my work is humanistic; I find people interesting and fascinating. And I believe we’re all linked with each other.
Would your photographs have also worked in other countries and cultures, or were they intended to show above all the diversity of the United States?
Of course they were also about a kind of cataloguing – strongly influenced, by the way, by the German photographer August Sander and his incredible portrait series “People of the Twentieth Century”. After working a while on “Touching Strangers”, I started looking quite deliberately for suitable couples. Couples that seemed to me to belong together, who had the right symmetry, but also couples between whom tension was tangible or to be expected. Many people asked me whether I would also take photos in Europe or Japan, because there people had a different relation to their bodies. But for me it was about the United States: the tensions here have many shades, there are people from everywhere. We Americans like to judge people by their appearance; we’re interested in what they show the outside world. There’s this superficial element in “Touching Strangers”, but at the same time I also want to go deeper and look beneath the surface.
Living together in the USA
You started the project in 2007. How has the society changed since then?
Ten years ago the Obama era was just beginning. The idea of community has since then definitively changed. Right now, in my opinion, many things no longer have to do with a real living together. On the contrary, much sounds like civil war. Right-wingers, immigration opponents and nationalists have taken over the Republican Party. This has been going on now for a few years. After Trump’s election as President of the United States, I even questioned for a long time the whole concept of community and coexistence.
Now you’ve taken photographs in which you can almost feel being together and closeness physically.
If you look at the pictures, you project yourself into them. I’ve got a lot of feedback from religious people and also from women. Perhaps they had a certain desire or attraction to the idea of intimacy. Other people found the pictures scary. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
What was the overall response to your pictures?
We published “Touching Strangers” in book form in 2014. In early October 2017 it was reprinted together with the “Aperture Foundation” as a paperback; the first edition sold out.
What have you gained personally from the project?
Most revealing to me was how much complete strangers opened up, how they allowed me to work with them. This has given a lot to me, my ideas and my work. It was really wonderful and I think the experience has made me a better photographer. I’m now much more confident when I approach someone for a portrait.
Are you still in touch with some of the people you portrayed?
Not directly. Some came to the exhibition opening, but I don’t have anything to do with them in ordinary life. I really didn’t function as a matchmaker; at any rate, there haven’t yet been any wedding invitations.
All Photos © Richard Renaldi
Portrayed people: Janaki and Dominic | Shalom and Jeff | Emma and Charisse | Aaron and Ava | Jeromy and Matthew | Jimmy and Matt | Mirelle and Felicia | Julie and Xavier | Jesse and Michael
Richard Rinaldi was born in Chicago in 1968. He received his Bachelor in photography from the “New York University” in 1990. He is represented by “Benrubi Gallery” in New York and “Robert Morat Galerie” in Berlin. His photo works have been published in several monographs. He was the recipient of a 2015 fellowship from the “John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation”.
Christopher Resch is a freelance journalist based in Leipzig.